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The Organization Man
James Robert Clapper Jr. is so ‘just the facts, ma’am' that it’s often hard to stay awake through his long memoir. He reminds me of nobody quite so much as Colin Powell in his ‘My American Journey’ except less fun. With all of the high expectations I had of Powell while reading that book, remembering that he was the most popular man in America, in the end I discovered that he was not so brilliant as I had assumed. In the way Powell describes his formative mid-career minding the Fulda Gap, Clapper recounts his time minding the Korean DMZ. One gets the impression that in our massive government apparatus there are selection effects and treatment effects. Like Powell, Clapper is evidence of treatment.
His is a very long, but not very storied career. When I came away from the story of Dick Cheney, it explained so many of the details and the thinking behind the details of fascinating intrigues in the White House. I was quite impressed.
What James Clapper demonstrates however, is a single-minded determination to do right by his country. Reading his pedestrian accounting assures me in an odd way that if there is something like a deep state, then it is the service branches, and that we are well served by their dedication and competence.
Watching Clapper navigate through the pain of Washington bureaucracy is testament to something I learned during my time in the FBI Citizen’s Academy a few years ago. What was explained to me there was the escalation of legal formulations over the years. In the early days of the FBI, there was a charter and a mission. Here’s what you need to do and here is the legal authority and budget to go do it, all in one fat 1000 page book. Then after several decades of doing and unexpected consequences, failures and excesses came the second evolution. This consisted of a comprehensive set of regulations on exactly how to accomplish that mission through formalized processes, polices and procedures. The 1000 page book became a 12 volume set. Next came the layer of checks and balances and restraints that insured that the formalized processes were documented, audited, accounted for, and the roles and responsibilities of oversight, governance and public disclosure. That expanded the 12 volumes to 120 now covering 3 walls of a law library. I now know that there are six levels of legal review for every FBI investigation. Clapper’s description of the legal authorization bills and politics that establish the Directorate of National Intelligence put down in detail how navigating the warren of regulation both insures some civilian sanction and gives political cover for ineffective leadership.
There are several moments in the book where Clapper takes us aside wondering aloud if the American people really want to connect all the dots that could have told us, for example, that a military officer was communicating via email to a radical Islamist who influence him to go on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He intimates that we could do that, but do we really want to, as if when ordered he would not fight it. Or accept it with resignation of heart but not of office. There are so many moments in this book that suggest to me that a great deal of unpalatable management of our intelligence assets and procedures goes unaccounted for, and that only at long last can men such as Clapper heave a sigh of relief that common sense prevailed. It is this kind of reticence that keeps our agencies backwards and leaves our citizenry in the dark. It is why we elect china shop bulls. It is why we celebrate ratfink traitors who disclose. It is why we scoff at the telling of what is at risk when we know so many of our secrets are known to our national enemies.
Clapper’s audible marks on our society are only revealed as a series of both calculated and clumsy comments. His testimony in Congress is the kind of public record that is only a sliver of the stories that can be told, even when he finally clarifies with the appropriate context years later. At some point, it gets a little tiring to hear about the honor and glory of the 133 anonymous stars on the wall at CIA. Without disrespect, but if that is the sum total of blood spilled in the service of national security, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of sacrifice that compares well to the lamest of dangers.
There is nothing so salient in Clapper’s book as his last chapters in which he expresses his of disgust and contempt for President Trump. In this he comes out with a reasonably succinct and credible set of criticisms that I think in retrospect are almost obvious. These are too little too late, but at least they demonstrate to me that Clapper had been pushed to the wall and demonstrated the kind of emotional truth required of someone who has the inside story on the discovery and dissemination of facts. It at once demonstrates precisely the kind of integrity a man in his position absolutely requires and the kind of candor he failed to demonstrate to anyone outside of his chain of command and official channels. In this regard, Clapper, like so many others in his position have been caught blindsided by the ‘transparency’ of organizations like Wikileaks.
Nothing so clearly demonstrated this to me as the way the book handles the matter of the breach of the OPM. As much hay as was made of the various breaches of Hilary Clinton’s emails and the emails of other government officials, it pales in comparison to the breach that revealed the personal information of every applicant to secret clearances in the federal government. Yet Clapper seems to downplay its importance by his simple acknowledgement that this is the kind of international espionage that happens all the time amongst our multigenerational rivals and enemies. It perfect sense to mark the difference between a breach accomplished by external enemies like China and one initiated by an inside traitor like Snowden. But the actionability of the exposed secret stash is irrelevant to the method of exposure. So breath wasted in the perfidy of Snowden is so much patriotic jawboning. A failure is a failure, and now our enemies have the secrets. Enemies 1. USA 0.
Of course that’s not the actual score. We can’t know the score. It’s classified above our pay grade. So we are left to trust that the Intelligence Community knows what it is doing and is doing the best that can be done. I believe that. That’s because I’m capable at the very edge of my ability to guesstimate the evidence of things unseen. And yet… Let me tell you a little story. As I mentioned before, I have had the privilege of attending the FBI Citizens Academy. I got a chance to ask an offhanded question of one of the top brass at the Los Angeles Federal Building. My question was basically, of all of the open sources who can I trust? Who has the best unofficial grip on what’s actually happening out there? The honest and scary answer was roughly this. “When I’m in that SCIF and my people are telling what’s happening on the ground, it takes all of my focus and scares the shit out of me. I don’t have time to read and evaluate second hand information.” In other words, I’d tell you, but then you’d probably go shoot yourself. I don’t think I would shoot myself. In the end, it’s not Cthulu out there, just hostile humans with complicated means and complicated ends.
In the end there are two very large lessons to be learned from Clapper’s book. The first is rather unavoidable given who Clapper is and what his career has needed and expected him to be. That is quite simply that Russia remains a dangerous enemy. While it remains to be seen whether or not Chinese influence on American society and politics is of primary concern to that regime, there should be no doubt in the minds of Americans that the Russians under Putin are all about employing every dirty trick in the book to undermine American confidence in our society. They are not amateurs at this and are not likely to be stopped. A credulous American public will be aided and abetted by sophisticated Russian propaganda to make us question everything that is not about football and pop music - where we tend to make up our own minds with a well informed skepticism. But in the realm of cynicism and conspiracy theory - which is a good third of our political conversation, the Russians are on the side of the devil, and they will be relentless.
The second lesson to be learned is something Clapper doesn’t seem to recognize himself, old Cold War dog that he is. That is what remains classified in the mission and operations of the Intelligence Community would go a very long way in assisting the American public in making sense of that which transpired and what its implications are. We Americans are evidently not served by anything but the weakest links in our fourth estate. One thing Clapper continually says in his book is the value of ‘speaking truth to power’. But he doesn’t seem to understand that the responsibility of the US Intelligence Community does not begin and end with some gentleman’s agreement between those agencies and their chains command ending in the White House. In other words, if Russians have RT publishing propaganda every day to millions of Americans, those citizens cannot depend on Snopes or any other media entity to take a longitudinal analysis on the facts. If the IC is to consistently speak truth to power, then it is in its interests to insure those facts are presented clearly to the American public. Tell us. We’re not going to go shoot ourselves. Clapper makes it abundantly clear that the declassification and transparency provided over the past years have required extraordinary efforts - and that neither Congress nor the Press can be relied upon not to twist those facts, or couch them in inappropriate contexts.
I cannot trust such matters of fact to be revealed in books like those of Clapper or of obscure historians long after the political decisions have been made. Something on the order of a declassified daily brief is going to have to be the IC’s ongoing responsibility. Who knew, for example, that ‘unmasking’ as a standard process that does not breach national security had taken place hundreds of times? When it came to the case and controversy surrounding Michael Flynn, it was practically impossible for anyone who wasn’t an insider to understand how whistleblower rules were or were not followed. Who even knows now whether or not the steps taken by Devin Nunes were legal, ethical, political and or factual? There were few if any references Clapper gave to journalists or experts that got it right on those times he expressed sincere doubts that Americans were hearing the straight story. You’re damned right we’re not hearing a straight story. It’s more than complex. It’s more than opaque. It’s more than incomplete. It’s classified, and if the entire matter were declassified it would still be complex, opaque, incomplete and politicized on top of all that. So the liars win.
What this country needs is an intelligence enema, and we’re not going to get one so long as we keep pretending that our secrets matter more than they do. What Americans need to know cannot be compartmentalized, and so long as our Congress is as dysfunctionally partisan as it is, the chances are slim that the American public will be kept appropriately aware of the business of its intelligence services. I prefer not to judge Clapper because I understand that his being forthright as possible is unsatisfactory to the kind of curiosity I and millions of other Americans possess. I hate looking back in retrospect knowing I can’t get 12 straight answers in a row as deeds are in process. Even as I write and rewrite this review, I am frustrated at having heard so many of the same stories without sufficient clarity, or even an informative bias. I relent in saying I can only hope reading this makes you feel as frustrated as I do.
In the end I must recall that the truth is painful and men are often better served by secrets and lies. We have from Clapper a large collection of the likely most verifiable facts to be had. It’s so unsatisfying. Perhaps it is unrealistic to believe that satisfaction is ever at hand. Clapper has demonstrated, at the dear price of a normal family life, that the work of the intelligence business is compelling, relentless and likely to turn a reasonable man’s life inside out. He is a man with very little to smile about.